by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

“He’s human, but not by much.” Todd Woodbridge, on Pete Sampras

Quick, somebody, get the man a rival. A foil. An enemy. A villain with a sword. Get him a Wilt Chamberlain for his Bill Russell, a Pharaoh to his Moses, a Lex Luthor to his Superman. Otherwise, Pete Sampras, the greatest tennis player we have ever seen, may skip over our horizon without anyone realizing what a remarkable talent he truly is.

He won his fourth Wimbledon on Sunday in less time than it takes to play the first half of a football game. Straight sets. Never surrendered his serve. The reaction at Centre Court? I think I caught the Duke of Kent nodding off.

Four Wimbledons now puts the 25-year-old Sampras ahead of John McEnroe, Boris Becker and John Newcombe, and if you add those jewels to his four U.S. Open and two Australian crowns …well, let’s cut to the chase: Three more Grand Slam titles and Sampras will rank, trophy-wise, as the best there ever was.

The best there ever was. Read that again. The best there ever was. I’m repeating it because they don’t say that about too many people. The best there ever was. Yet when they say it about Sampras it seems to drip off his back like water off a British umbrella.

“He leaves you no air to breathe,” sighed the man he vanquished Sunday afternoon, France’s Cedric Pioline, who had as much chance of victory as he did of turning a croissant into a tuna.

(Besides, and I don’t mean to digress here, but it’s pretty hard to get behind a guy named Cedric. Hearing fans yell “You da man, Cedric!” just didn’t cut it.)

But back to his comment about Sampras. He leaves you no air to breathe. That’s pretty impressive coming from an opponent, no? So why did so many fans leave Wimbledon with an empty feeling, as if they’d run out of cream before they’d run out of strawberries?

Well. Consider the drama of the match. You want me to skip to the highlight? I mean the real heart-thumping moment? Here it is. Third set. Break point for Pioline. That’s to break one game of Sampras’ serve. Not to win the match. Not to win a set. Just to break his serve.

And it didn’t happen. Sampras — who later confessed to a momentary lapse in concentration (perhaps he was trying to remember whom he was playing) — stormed back with two service winners and an easy volley winner.

Danger over.

I’ll give you a moment to catch your breath.

If only Agassi could challenge again

Let’s face it, Sampras had a run for the ages at this Wimbledon. He blistered everyone he played. He lost only two games on his serve, and more than half of his serves never even got returned. And people shrugged it off?

This only proves that Sampras needs a regular enemy, if only to give the world a measuring stick for his excellence. Connors had Borg and Borg had McEnroe, Ali had Frazier, the Lakers had the Celtics. But in his four Wimbledon titles, Sampras has beaten four different players.

“In the United States, you do need a rivalry,” he admitted Sunday. “When you have one, people who don’t follow tennis will follow it.

“Two times in my career, I thought I had some real rivalries kicking up. Once against Boris and once against (Andre) Agassi.

“But it’s so difficult in the 1990s. There are so many great players and the game is so much deeper. It’s hard to have the same people coming through all the time.”

“Well,” I said, “it hasn’t stopped you from making the final here four times.”

“Yeah,” he said, smiling. “Thank you.”

You’re welcome, but I didn’t mean it that way. I meant if Sampras can do it, why can’t someone else? Becker and Stefan Edberg met in three straight finals here in 1988-90. McEnroe, Borg and Connors — in some combination — met five times in six years for the crown in 1977-82.

And admit it. You remember those guys more. It isn’t — as some critics say — Sampras’ deadly serious personality. It isn’t that he fails to throw tantrums out there or that, as he said Sunday, “I’m not David Letterman during interviews.”

Hey, Borg was as boring as they come. But he had McEnroe to contrast him. Edberg was as stoic as grass, but Becker’s emotion helped shade him.

“That’s why when Andre and I are competing, it works,” Sampras said. “He’s the flamboyant emotional one, and I can be me.”

Of course, Agassi — who has met Sampras three times in Grand Slam finals, by far the closest contemporary Sampras has had — bagged out of Wimbledon again this year. He’s either too hurt, too distracted, too in love or too nuts to be consistent. Poor Pete. It’s not his fault that history gave him a head case for a challenger.

“Do you ever see yourself changing the way you are on the court?” a Brit asked him. “You know, playing with more emotion yourself?”

“Well,” Sampras said, biting his tongue, “my way has worked so far.”

Sampras has all the shots

Say that again. Sampras is not only a model of laser-like focus, he’s fluid in all strokes.

It wasn’t just serving that won him Wimbledon. He hit passing shots that kicked up chalk on the baseline, and he came to the net brilliantly. On one memorable play Sunday, Pioline had Sampras running, and he smacked a forehand down the line. Sampras had no business getting to it, but he lunged — pure instinct — and the racket head was perfect, the ball shot almost horizontally across the court for a dropping winner.

“Sometimes,” Sampras said of that play, “your muscle memory takes over.”

Muscle memory? You mean his body does that on its own? No wonder Becker quit Wimbledon for good after losing to Sampras in the quarters, saying he could no longer compete with the likes of Pete.

Given the way Sampras is going, the shock isn’t that Boris retired, but that more players didn’t.

Oh well, as they say here, there you have it. Thus ends another Wimbledon fortnight, one in which familiar patterns repeated: It rained forever, players whined, critics argued the tournament should be junked, and it all managed to finish on time, as usual, with yet another teenage sensation capturing the women’s crown — Martina Hingis — and Pistol Pete going home with the big trophy once more.

The only thing lacking is what I’ve been suggesting, a rival for Sampras, because he truly is as wonderful a player as there has ever been. Strong, fast, resilient, intense — and, by the way, American. In fact, it is only because he is as great as he is, and we need to do whatever it takes to show it, that I would even dare, in a million years, ask the following question:

Does Dennis Rodman play tennis?


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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